Melanin Directly Converts Light for Vertebrate Metabolic Use: Heuristic Thoughts on Birds, Icarus and Dark Human Skin

Med Hypotheses. 2008 Aug;71(2):190-202. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2008.03.038. Epub 2008 May 13.


Pigments serve many visually obvious animal functions (e.g. hair, skin, eyes, feathers, scales). One is 'melanin', unusual in an absorption across the UV-visual spectrum which is controversial. Any polymer or macro-structure of melanin monomers is 'melanin'. Its roles derive from complex structural and physical-chemical properties e.g. semiconductor, stable radical, conductor, free radical scavenger, charge-transfer. Clinicians and researchers are well acquainted with melanin in skin and ocular pathologies and now increasingly are with internal, melanized, pathology-associated sites not obviously subject to light radiation (e.g. brain, cochlea). At both types of sites some findings puzzle: positive and negative neuromelanin effects in Parkinsons; unexpected melanocyte action in the cochlea, in deafness; melanin reduces DNA damage, but can promote melanoma; in melanotic cells, mitochondrial number was 83% less, respiration down 30%, but development similar to normal amelanotic cells. A little known, avian anatomical conundrum may help resolve melanin paradoxes. One of many unique adaptations to flight, the pecten, strange intra-ocular organ with unresolved function(s), is much enlarged and heavily melanized in birds fighting gravity, hypoxia, thirst and hunger during long-distance, frequently sub-zero, non-stop migration. The pecten may help cope with energy and nutrient needs under extreme conditions, by a marginal but critical, melanin-initiated conversion of light to metabolic energy, coupled to local metabolite recycling. Similarly in Central Africa, reduction in body hair and melanin increase may also have lead to 'photomelanometabolism' which, though small scale/ unit body area, in total may have enabled a sharply increased development of the energy-hungry cortex and enhanced human survival generally. Animal inability to utilize light energy directly has been traditionally assumed. Melanin and the pecten may have unexpected lessons also for human physiology and medicine.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Birds
  • Capillaries / metabolism
  • DNA Damage
  • Humans
  • Light
  • Melanins / chemistry
  • Melanins / physiology*
  • Melanocytes / metabolism
  • Melanoma / etiology
  • Microscopy, Electron, Scanning
  • Models, Biological
  • Retinal Vessels / anatomy & histology
  • Retinal Vessels / metabolism
  • Skin / metabolism
  • Skin / pathology*
  • Ultraviolet Rays
  • Vertebrates


  • Melanins